March 25, 2015
Guest: Jeffrey Toobin
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On Monday Ted Cruz, the first-term senator from Texas, became the first Republican candidate to officially declare he was running for president.
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SENATOR TED CRUZ: It is a time for truth.
CRUZ: It is a time for liberty.
CRUZ: It is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.
GROSS: Cruz's conservative interpretation of the Constitution is the foundation of his political agenda. He is a very popular figure in the Tea Party but a very divisive figure in the Republican Party. My guest, Jeffrey Toobin, profiled Cruz in The New Yorker last June and wrote about Cruz's legal and political background. Toobin is a staff writer at the magazine and covers legal issues. He's also CNN's senior legal analyst. We recorded our interview yesterday afternoon.
Jeffrey Toobin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks for coming back to the show. So Ted Cruz wants to reclaim the Constitution of the United States. Who does he want to reclaim it from?
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Ruth Bader Ginsburg...
TOOBIN: ...and anyone who agrees - (laughter) and anyone who agrees with her about much of anything. No, he is an unusually informed and educated student of the Constitution. We have never had a president of the United States or a nominee of a major party who was a Supreme Court law clerk. But Ted Cruz was a clerk not too long ago for Chief Justice William Rehnquist. And he knows the law very well. And he has very strong feelings. And that's a big part of his political appeal.
GROSS: So what does he want to do after he has reclaimed the Constitution?
TOOBIN: Well, it's a broad agenda that involves lowering the barriers between church and state. It involves allowing prohibitions on abortion for states to pass. It involves no recognition of rights for gay people. It involves devolution of power from the federal government to the states. It is a comprehensive vision of what the Constitution should stand for.
GROSS: You describe his interpretation of the Constitution as being a textualist. He is a textualist. What does that mean?
TOOBIN: Well, it's a philosophy that's very much associated with Antonin Scalia, who is really the originator of the view, which is that both the Constitution and statutes - laws passed by Congress - mean only what the words can narrowly be interpreted to say, that they are not meant to be read in context. They are not meant to be read with an understanding of what the intent of the authors was. It is a narrow view of the meaning of what are usually thought to be broad terms in the Constitution and in statutes.
GROSS: Ted Cruz's undergraduate thesis at Princeton was on the Ninth and 10th Amendments, which at the time I think were considered pretty obscure, but they became central to the Tea Party's interpretation of the Constitution and the law. What do those amendments say? Why are they so central in Ted Cruz's understanding of the Constitution?
TOOBIN: Well, through over 200 years, the Supreme Court itself has had a hard time interpreting the Ninth and 10th Amendments. They are somewhat mysterious in their phrasing. But both of them have at their core the idea that power must be reserved to the states; that state power versus federal power is obviously a fundamental conflict that's been apparent since the founding of the United States. But in the modern constitutional conversation, advocates for a broad interpretation of the Ninth and 10th Amendments are people who want to see federal power limited. And in that undergraduate thesis you really can see the roots of his opposition to Obamacare - which is obviously a signature issue for him - that limiting federal power is a core interest of his.
GROSS: The 10th Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. So does that mean that Cruz takes that at face value that anything that isn't specifically mentioned in the Constitution goes to the states? And, like, health care is not specifically mentioned to - in the Constitution; therefore, it's a states issue and there should be no federal legislation about health care? Would that be a reasonable way...
TOOBIN: Well, I think that would be too extreme a reading of it. But, I mean, as you read the words of the 10th Amendment you can see that the idea behind the 10th Amendment is that unless the Constitution specifically authorizes the federal government to do something, those powers belong to the states and to individuals. Now, over the history of the Supreme Court, the justices have had a hard time sort of labeling powers that apply under the 10th Amendment, but the general concept is a real one and a point of real contention. I mean, starting in the New Deal, the Franklin Roosevelt appointees to the Supreme Court really established a very robust understanding of the powers of the federal government to regulate the national economy. And one of the real signatures of the Tea Party movement, of which Ted Cruz is a major example, is that they object to broad grant of power to the federal government. And Obamacare is the symbol of all that is wrong with giving too much power to the federal government. And Cruz is certainly very much in that tradition.
GROSS: One of the things Ted Cruz stands for - and he mentioned that Monday in his speech announcing that he was running for president - is he wants to abolish the IRS - not lower taxes but just abolish the IRS. Does anyone else support him in that? And where does that fit into his constitutional views?
TOOBIN: Well, you know, I have to say, Terry, that strikes me as a false note in what otherwise I think is a fairly comprehensive and comprehensible worldview on the part of Cruz. You know, when I wrote about him in The New Yorker, he was not quite in full presidential campaign mode. And if I can speak simply, he wasn't saying dumb things like abolish the IRS. I mean, you know, nobody loves paying taxes, but the notion that we could not have an Internal Revenue Service or its equivalent - another frankly dumb thing he said is he would take all 115,000 IRS agents and put them at the Mexican border to stop people from coming across. Putting aside the issue of whether you could move people to the Mexican border, there are not nearly that many IRS agents in the United States. And that speaks to me to a certain sloppiness that has come into his political language in recent months, which I think is too bad because I think it detracts from some very serious political arguments that he makes. But abolishing the IRS, sending IRS to the borders, I think anyone can see it's charitably rhetoric or, more bluntly, nonsense.
GROSS: So Ted Cruz is definitely strongly motivated by his constitutional views and also by his religion. In fact, he sees the two as inseparable, as he made clear in his speech this week announcing his run for the presidency. Let's hear an excerpt.
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CRUZ: What is the promise of America? The idea that - the revolutionary idea that this country was founded upon, which is that our rights, they don't come from man. They come from God Almighty.
CRUZ: And that the purpose of the Constitution, as Thomas Jefferson put it, is to serve as chains to bind the mischief of government.
GROSS: So the idea that we just heard Ted Cruz express - that our rights don't come from man, they come from God - is there anything in the Constitution that would lead him to say that the rights in the Constitution come directly from God?
TOOBIN: Well, this is a big fight that's going on now between Tea Party activists and more traditional interpreters of the Constitution. Obviously the First Amendment has two references to religion, and they are somewhat in tension with each other. There is the Establishment Clause which said the government can't establish religion. But there's also the Free Exercise Clause which says individuals are allowed to worship freely. And the conservatives put a lot more emphasis on the Free Exercise Clause than the Establishment Clause. Obviously a big part of the American Revolution was there would be no Church of England the way there was in England. There was a specific attempt not to have an established church. And many of the framers, including Thomas Jefferson, whom Cruz quoted in his speech on Monday, you know, were not very religious in the traditional or current understanding of what that was. But there are many references to God, including in the Declaration of Independence (reading) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. So God was not absent at all from the consideration of the framers. But, you know, this is a hotly debated topic. And Tea Party folks, like Cruz, have very strong views on this subject.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin, and he profiled Ted Cruz a few months ago in The New Yorker. Jeffrey Toobin writes about legal affairs for The New Yorker and is the senior legal analyst for CNN. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more about Ted Cruz. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about Ted Cruz, who announced this week that he's going to run for president on the Republican Party in the primary. And with me is Jeffrey Toobin, who profiled Ted Cruz for The New Yorker and is senior legal analyst for CNN. He writes about legal issues for The New Yorker as well.
So in talking about Ted Cruz's religious views, I think we need to step back and talk about his father, Rafael Cruz. And his father, Rafael Cruz, grew up in Cuba. At age 17, he fought against the Batista regime, which was a dictatorship. He was imprisoned. He says he was tortured and beaten there. Then the revolutionaries deposed Batista. Castro comes to power, and Ted Cruz's father decides Castro's even worse than Batista. He moves to the U.S. And then when Ted Cruz is 3, at a time when his parents, who were heavy drinkers, were having marital problems, Ted's father is born again. He becomes a charismatic minister. What did he preach, and who did he preach to when he became a charismatic minister?
TOOBIN: Well, Rafael Cruz is really a fascinating man and a very important part of Ted's past and also his current political life. Rafael Cruz is a major surrogate for Ted Cruz out on the political hustings. When I was with him at the Texas Republican Convention last summer, he was almost as big as an attraction as his son. You know, there is a real connection, I think, between constitutional literalism and biblical literalism - that the Bible means precisely what the words say. It is not a metaphor. It is not symbolic speech. It is a literal approach. And that is what Rafael Cruz preaches. And the idea that the Constitution means only what the words can narrowly be defined to mean - the idea of a strict code of conduct defined by the Bible goes hand in hand with a narrow definition, particularly of the liberty interests, that are expressed in the Constitution.
GROSS: In 1980, when Ted was 9, his father got involved with a group called the Religious Roundtable. What was that group?
TOOBIN: Well, it was part of what was more widely known as the Moral Majority - 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan, the first time the religious right became a powerful force in national elections. That, of course, was the year that a whole generation of liberal senators was swept out when Ronald Reagan was elected president. And Rafael Cruz was a part of that in Texas. And, you know, that evangelical community has continued to be a very powerful part of American politics. And his son - Ted Cruz's political career has been propelled by them to a great extent.
GROSS: So do you think that Ted Cruz's father's connection to the Moral Majority - because he was a member of the Religious Roundtable, which was connected to the Moral Majority - do you think that helps explain why Ted Cruz made his announcement that he was running for president at Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell, who also was a co-founder of the Moral Majority?
TOOBIN: Well, I don't think it was a direct connection, but - as in, you know, well, my dad worked for them, I'm going to declare there. But what it does suggest, in fact, it says very clearly, is that Senator Cruz sees his political base as the evangelical community. And if his presidential run is to have any success at all, he's got to move to the head of a fairly long line of presidential candidates this year who are seeking that same constituency.
So declaring his candidacy at Liberty University is, in addition to being a great forum for him - you know, with thousands of cheering students, all of whom were required to be there - but it's also an appeal to the constituency that he's going to need if he's going to succeed as a presidential candidate.
GROSS: This isn't necessarily directly relevant, but Ted Cruz worked really hard with his filibuster to block funding for Obamacare. Liberty University filed a lawsuit to stop Obamacare.
TOOBIN: Absolutely. I mean, the core of Ted Cruz's political being - and in fact, if you were to ask Republican voters today one thing that they know about Ted Cruz, it's that he is a passionate opponent of Obamacare, as he almost single-handedly shut down the federal government over it. And it is also worth noting that as Obamacare gets more established, some Republicans are saying, well, there are parts of it we want to keep. We want to keep kids on their parents' insurance until age 26. We want to keep no, you know, denials of insurance for pre-existing conditions.
Cruz makes a point - anytime he talks about Obamacare, he talks about repealing every single word. And that, I think, is just, you know, how he sees - one important area of how he sees himself as different from mainstream Republicans. He is not afraid to take extreme positions. In fact, he embraces them. And that's - his presidential candidacy is going to be a real test to see if the primary electorate, much less the general electorate, wants to - wants that kind of approach.
GROSS: Getting back to Ted Cruz's father, Rafael Cruz, who became an evangelical preacher. You say he's an important surrogate on the campaign trail - that he did a lot of campaigning when Ted Cruz ran for Senate. Have you seen him on the campaign trail, or have you heard any of his speeches?
TOOBIN: Yes. Oh, yes.
GROSS: Tell us what he's like and what he talks about.
TOOBIN: Well, you know, he really does - it's a very religiously focused appeal. He is a charismatic minister, and so he talks as much about God as he does about country. But the constant parallel that Rafael draws when he's speaking is between Fidel Castro and Barack Obama, that - you know, he talks about how Fidel Castro came promising hope and change. He always uses the phrase hope and change, and there's always a knowing laugh in the audience because they know that phrase is so much associated with Obama.
And the core idea of, you know, oppressive government equals tyranny is perfectly illustrated by Rafael by the parallels he sees between Castro's Cuba and Obama's America. So I mean, that is - the Cuba remains, all these years later, the formative political experience of Rafael Cruz's life, and the lesson he draws is very explicitly one against Obama-style government in the United States.
GROSS: Outside of, like, the hope and change, what comparisons has he seen between Castro's Cuba and President Obama's America?
TOOBIN: The government taking over everything, the government running healthcare, the government running the automobile industry, the government telling people what to do in every aspect of their lives - that's the core parallel between the two systems.
GROSS: And does Ted Cruz continue his father's analogy between Castro and Obama?
TOOBIN: Not as explicitly. You know, I think - you know, if asked, he certainly does, but that's not a classic part of the Cruz stump speech. Although, the notion of fleeing an oppressive tyranny is something that is important to him. But he doesn't as explicitly draw the parallel between Castro and Obama that his father does.
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's senior legal news analyst who also covers legal affairs for The New Yorker, where he profiled Ted Cruz. We spoke yesterday.
After we recorded the interview, we learned that despite Cruz's fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Cruz might soon be getting his health insurance through the Act. Now that his wife is taking a leave from her job at Goldman Sachs to work on his campaign, the family has lost their health insurance. According to CNN, Cruz's advisers said that Obamacare has wiped out the individual market, leaving him with few options. Members of Congress are required to obtain their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but they also passed an amendment which provides them with a subsidy that covers most of the premium. Cruz's advisers have said he would not take the subsidy. According to CNN, Cruz denied that there was anything ironic about him going on Obamacare, saying he was simply following the law. I'll talk more with Jeffrey Toobin about Ted Cruz after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jeffrey Toobin about Ted Cruz, the first-term Republican senator from Texas who announced his run for president on Monday. Toobin writes about legal affairs for The New Yorker, where he profiled Cruz. Toobin is also CNN's senior legal analyst. When we left off we were talking about Cruz's father, Rafael, who has campaigned for Ted Cruz. Rafael was born again when Ted was 3 and became a charismatic minister.
Does Ted Cruz share his father's form of Christianity?
TOOBIN: He does, although this is something that has been somewhat surprising to people who knew him earlier in his life that - you know, the people who knew him at Princeton where he was an outstanding student and nationally ranked college debater, at Harvard Law School where he was a very valued aid to Alan Dershowitz, the professor who was himself no conservative, clerking on the Supreme Court. He was known much more as a sort of libertarian-style conservative than a religiously oriented conservative. And I think a combination of a growing religious awakening in Cruz's own personality and also a recognition of where the power is in the Republican Party - that is, with religiously oriented conservatives - has definitely moved him in the direction of a more God-focused approach to politics than he ever expressed as a young man.
GROSS: Do you know if it's his free religious views that inform his opposition to marriage equality and his opposition to abortion?
TOOBIN: You know, I am hesitant to draw that kind of conclusion as to why someone believes something, you know, whether it comes out of religion or political conviction. Certainly both religion and political conviction point him to absolute opposition to abortion rights. And I think at this political moment, even more interestingly, an uncompromising opposition to marriage equality for gay people, which is again something that a lot of people in the Republican Party are trying to moderate, saying that, well, it's up to the states; I respect other people's views. I mean, Cruz is, again, an absolutist on the question of marriage equality. And, you know, that is a, I think, a sort of perfect illustration of how he sees that Republicans always make a mistake. Republicans always try to ingratiate themselves with pundits, with what he calls, you know, Washington insiders, by trying to moderate their views. And he sees that as both morally and politically wrong. And marriage equality is a perfect illustration of that.
GROSS: Yeah, I mean, he basically accuses Republicans of compromising too often.
TOOBIN: Well, and it's even broader than that. I mean, I thought one of the most interesting conversations I had with Cruz was about how he sees the history of - the recent history of the Republican Party. And he says, look, when we nominate true-believing Republicans, we win - Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, the first team - first term of George Herbert Walker Bush. When we nominate moderates, we lose - Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole. Now, you can argue with why those people - those elections came out the way they did. But, you know, he is - this is the core of his political being, that Republicans who compromise are both intellectually dishonorable but also politically unwise. And that's going to be a great theme, I think, of this unfolding political campaign because you have all these very conservative candidates. And you have Jeb Bush and maybe Chris Christie who are arguably more to the center. And, you know, Cruz is going to make the case that we lose with moderates and we win with conservatives. And that's going to be fascinating to see how the Republican electorate responds to that.
GROSS: Whether or not one agrees with Ted Cruz and his interpretations of the Constitution, he's been studying the Constitution for a long time. And he knows it very well. This dates backs to his teens when his parents enrolled him in an afterschool program studying the Constitution. Tell us about that program.
TOOBIN: Well, it's really a fascinating program in Houston where he grew up. It was called Constitutional Corroborators. And he and a small group of students took classes at a local conservative think tank. And they would then travel all around Texas doing presentations about the Constitution - usually just memorizing the terms. And anyone who has actually taken a look at the Constitution knows it's actually a very difficult document to memorize. But this had an actual long-term significance I think. He would recite it. And the implicit message of reciting the powers of the Congress - taxes, credit, commerce, naturalization and a few more - was to remind the audience that the federal government had limited powers; that the Constitution only granted certain powers to the federal government. And this has been a core political belief of Cruz since he was a teenager - the idea that the text of the Constitution limits the federal government. And that is what those speeches at the Rotary Clubs meant. And it's what his speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate have meant.
GROSS: And you write that the program he was enrolled in studying the Constitution emphasized free market values; that the program was designed to emphasize that.
TOOBIN: Right, it was very explicitly a - politically oriented. It was part of something called The Free Enterprise Institute. And they did read Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and other conservative thinkers. But the specific part of it that Cruz really excelled at was this constitutional group. And he can still recite Article One of the Constitution, which if nothing else is an impressive parlor trick.
GROSS: In 1996 and '97, Ted Cruz clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist, as you mentioned before. Then he went to work for Cooper and Carven. This was a law firm. And the partners Cooper and Carvin had interesting legal backgrounds. Tell us a little bit about what they had done.
TOOBIN: Cooper and Carvin, before and since, have been two of the most prominent conservative lawyers in America. They both served in the Reagan administration before they started their partnership. People may find their names familiar because Chuck Cooper represented the defense in the Proposition 8 case, the same-sex marriage case out of California. And Michael Carvin just argued King versus Burwell, the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, in the Supreme Court. So, you know, these two were Ted Cruz's mentors in the law. And they are extremely accomplished lawyers and believe very strongly in using the law towards conservative ends. And that lesson that they got was - that they gave is one that has informed his entire career. And in fact, another associate at the law firm of Cooper and Carvin was the new senator from Arkansas, Senator Cotton, who wrote the celebrated, or notorious, letter to the government of Iran. So, I mean, this was a real breeding ground for important conservatives of the future.
GROSS: I'll mention, too, that, you know, you write that Cooper has been the long-time outside counsel - legal counsel to the NRA.
TOOBIN: Again, and one of the clients that Ted Cruz worked on the most as a young associate in that law firm was the National Rifle Association. So, you know, his association with gun rights goes way back.
GROSS: And in continuing with Ted Cruz's legal career, he worked for the impeachment of President Clinton. And then he worked as a domestic policy adviser on George W. Bush's presidential campaign. He met his wife working on the campaign. I think she was working on the campaign, too, right?
TOOBIN: They did work together. And, you know, she's a very impressive person in her own right, who worked in the Bush administration and later, you know, moved to Texas with him and then went on to work for Goldman Sachs for many years. And she just took a leave to work on her husband's presidential campaign.
GROSS: In 2000, Cruz worked on the contested election, working on the side of George Bush.
TOOBIN: That's right. In fact, that's where I first met Ted Cruz.
GROSS: Oh, you met him for that? What was he doing there?
TOOBIN: In Tallahassee, yes. You know, those of us who were down in Tallahassee for the recount were - you know, we were sort of thrown together, and no one knew how long it was going to take. Obviously it took 36 days, as we now know. But it was a pretty long time down in Tallahassee. And so, you know, as someone who was covering it - and I later wrote a book about it - I met a lot of the young lawyers on both sides. And I remember meeting young Ted Cruz, who was one of the people toiling away, writing briefs 'till all hours for James Baker and his team on behalf of the Bush campaign. And he was obviously a very committed and very competent young lawyer. Obviously I didn't know where - to what heights he would ascend. But, you know, those were some very impressive lawyers on both sides. And Ted Cruz was one of them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin. And he profiled Ted Cruz for The New Yorker, where he writes about legal issues. And Jeffrey Toobin is also CNN's senior legal analyst. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about Ted Cruz who announced this week that he plans to run in the Republican primary for president. And my guest is Jeffrey Toobin who profiled Ted Cruz in June in The New Yorker magazine where Toobin writes about legal issues. Toobin is also CNN's senior legal analyst.
So when Ted Cruz decided to enter politics and run for the Senate, what do you know about who financed his run?
TOOBIN: Well, he was a long-shot candidate for the Senate because there was one very well-known, very well-established candidate who was running and expected to win. And that was David Dewhurst who was then the Lieutenant Governor of Texas who had an enormous amount of money. Ted Cruz did have some financing from Club for Growth which is sort of a libertarian-style group in Washington. But I think what's most notable about his run for the Senate in 2012 was that he was the underdog, and he was out-financed by David Dewhurst.
But I think what was so striking about his run for office was that he was someone who rode the wave of the Tea Party. And he portrayed David Dewhurst as a spineless conciliator - as someone who was too willing to compromise. And that message, more than money, is what won him the Republican nomination. So as we think ahead to a Cruz presidential campaign, the message is that compromise is for losers. The message is the more extreme view can capture a primary 'cause that is precisely what happened in Texas. He came from way behind in the polls to defeat a well-regarded national - a statewide-known figure, David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor. And that clearly is what the plan is for his presidential campaign.
GROSS: So for your New Yorker profile of Ted Cruz, you interviewed him several times. Tell us more about your conversations with Ted Cruz and what you learned about him through those conversations.
TOOBIN: Well, first of all, he's just a very smart guy. And one of the things I found almost endearing about him is that, you know, he had spent a good deal of time in his life talking about the Supreme Court and arguing in the Supreme Court and clerking on the Supreme Court. And he knew that I had written a lot about it. I'd written two books about it. And he was almost gleeful at the opportunity to sort of be a law nerd again, which, you know, I found kind of appealing. I mean, this is obviously something he knew very well in all its ins and outs.
At the same time, you know, he is a very polished speaker. I think people who watched his announcement speech on Monday - you know, here was a guy who spoke for 30 minutes theater-in-the-round style without referring to a note speaking in clear paragraphs without any teleprompter. I mean, this is someone who is an extremely good political communicator. Now, obviously, you have to be receptive to his message which is extremely conservative.
But, you know, one of the things that I find frankly offensive when I hear discussions of Ted Cruz - they say, oh, he's just Sarah Palin. You know, he could not be farther from Sarah Palin. This is someone who has a completely thought-out political philosophy. And you can agree with it or disagree with it, but it holds together. And, you know, he is someone it's very easy to have an intelligent conversation with.
GROSS: Nevertheless, he seems very unpopular even in the Senate even in his own party.
TOOBIN: Especially in the Senate, especially in his own party - I mean I think this is what is so notable about his Senate career - that he arrived a junior senator - and, you know, the traditions of the Senate have gotten more flexible in recent years. It used to be that freshmen senators were really expected to be seen and not heard. But there is a certain culture of deference in the Senate which Cruz spurned. He not only spurned the tradition of relative quiet for newcomers, but the disruption that he brought to the Senate - the fact that he slowed things down - the fact that he did not allow his own party to speak with one voice, which is something Mitch McConnell, the then minority leader tried to do - the fact that he was always pushing McConnell, always pushing his senior colleague John Cornyn to take more extreme positions and culminating with, you know, his 21-hour quasi-filibuster over the Affordable Care Act and then, most extraordinarily of all, really shutting down the federal government virtually single-handedly - something that deeply, deeply alienated him from his colleagues, especially on his own side. Frankly, the Democrats love to have Ted Cruz up there speaking because they want him to be the symbol of the modern Republican Party. But this is what has propelled Cruz to a presidential candidacy, and we'll see how far it goes.
GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you so much for talking with us.
TOOBIN: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin covers legal affairs for The New Yorker, where he profiled Ted Cruz last June. Toobin is also CNN's senior legal analyst. Our interview was recorded yesterday. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book that's part memoir, part ghost story. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. In her new work of nonfiction called "American Ghost," writer Hannah Nordhaus investigates a haunting as well as the lost world of 19th-century European Jews who emigrated to the American Southwest. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Who doesn't love a good ghost story? The unseen hand moving a cup or the shadow climbing a staircase promises an existence beyond our mundane realities. Hannah Nordhaus's new book, "American Ghost," is an offbeat mishmash of memoir, cultural history, genealogical detective story and paranormal investigation, but it opens in the classic manner of spooky tales, with a sighting.
Late one night in the 1970s, a janitor was mopping the floor in a grand Victorian mansion in Santa Fe that had been turned into a hotel called La Posada, or place of rest. He looked up and saw a white-haired woman standing near the fireplace. She was dressed in a black gown. She was also translucent. Soon, the white-haired woman was spotted everywhere in the hotel along with attendant eerie phenomena like cold spots, swaying chandeliers and disembodied voices. Disturbances, though, were centered in one room - the bedroom of the former mistress of the house, a woman named Julia Schuster Staab. To this day, Hannah Nordhaus says, Julia Staab is Santa Fe's most famous ghost. She also happens to be Nordhaus's great-great-grandmother.
Ever since she was a child, Nordhaus says, she's been fascinated with her restless ancestor. The enigmatic figure of Julia Staab has materialized not only within the confines of La Posada, but also in novels, histories of the Southwest, and as a star attraction on ghost tours of Santa Fe. Rumors about Julia's life abound. In some versions she is a Gothic madwoman, tortured by the loss of a child. In others, she is a feminist icon, protesting her fate as a bride in an arranged marriage, shackled to a tyrannical husband. As Nordhaus points out, Julia's ghost story, like the mansion that was once her home, has been remodeled over and over to suit changing fashions.
Nordhaus, who skeptically sort of maybe believes in ghosts, sets out on what she calls a metaphorical and literal ghost hunt. She wants to disentangle the flesh-and-blood figure of her great-great-grandmother from the ghost. In order to do so, she employs the tools of the historian, such as immigration roles and journals, the tools of genealogy and the more woo-woo services of psychics, tarot card readers and dowsers. In her introduction, Nordhaus promises that once she's fortified herself with as much knowledge of Julia as she can glean, in order to figure out why she might be sticking, she'll spend a night alone in that bedroom in La Posada - a narrative teaser if there ever was one.
I said that "American Ghost" is an offbeat mishmash of a book. That's part criticism, part complement. The book is stuffed with background digressions - some, like the history of the Fox sisters and the spiritualist movement that swept America after the Civil War, read like filler that should have been trimmed. The most compelling sections of Nordhaus's book, however, are the moments when she unearths traces of Julia Staab's life. Staab was 21, a daughter of a well-off, German-Jewish family, when she left the old world and traveled with her bridegroom, Abraham, a dry goods merchant, to her new home. Here's how Nordhaus evokes her great-great-grandmother's journey via stagecoach on the Santa Fe Trail.
(Reading) The seats were stuffed with hay to keep contusions to a minimum, but it wasn't much help with the wheels jolting over ruts and pits and stones. Hay lined the floor to warm Julia's feet, and buffalo robes warmed her lap. To keep out the cold air, the side flaps were fastened. Julia rode in the dark. An adobe hut welcomed Julia at the end of the trail, eventually to be replaced by that grand mansion which would be filled with seven children.
Nordhaus vividly summons up the larger world of German-Jewish merchant families in the Southwest and delves into Julia's particular friendship or possibly love affair with the Catholic archbishop in Santa Fe who would later be memorialized in Willa Cather's famous novel, "Death Comes For The Archbishop." Fortunately for Nordhaus, she obviously hails from a family of packrats. Her book is graced by excerpts from a diary kept by one of Julia's daughters, family letters and several atmospheric photos of Julia herself.
At the end of Nordhaus's own trail awaits that night of reckoning in Julia's bedroom. Something does happen there, but my lips are sealed. Whether you believe in ghosts or are just intrigued by their persistence in popular culture, "American Ghost," is, itself, a haunting story about the long reach of the past.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University, and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "American Ghost" by Hannah Nordhaus.
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